The Kino Border Initiative

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By Frank Barrios

In January 2009, a new humanitarian program was established in Nogales, Arizona, created to assist undocumented immigrants being deported back to Mexico. I was finally able to visit Nogales in 2010 to see for myself how the program was progressing. I was impressed with what I saw and decided to help in whatever way that I could.

It was not hard to see that the problem was much larger than the available resources. A handful of members and volunteers from several religious communities were trying to stem the tide of an onslaught of deported migrants. It was like fighting a forest fire with a garden hose.

The humanitarian program is a continuing heroic effort, whose story needs to be shared with everyone who would listen. A Sunday mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Nogales, Arizona, was used to commemorate the beginning of the Kino Border Initiative, or the KBI. The program was inaugurated by six religious organizations: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hermosillo, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, the California Province of the Society of Jesus, the Mexican Province of the Society of Jesus and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

The KBI was created to respond to an escalating crisis that surrounds the continuing deportation of mostly Mexican citizens back to their country of origin at Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Men, women and children arrive by bus at the border crossing, and from there, walk back into Mexico. They generally have little or no money, and many arrive with only the clothes on their backs. Many of these people are exploited and fall prey to the drug cartels, or are abused and taken advantage of by unscrupulous individuals. At certain times of the year, many buses arrive daily and deport hundreds of people each day. Most of these individuals are decent, hardworking people, fleeing poverty, desperate for an opportunity.

The crisis at the U.S./Mexico border represents the symptoms of a larger issue: the failure of Mexico to solve its burgeoning poverty, and the failure of the United States to stem the wave of undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S. border.

Volunteer high school student serving a meal at KBI’s CAMDEP. Photo courtesy of KBI

After many years of evaluating this phenomenon, two organizations, the California Province of the Society of Jesus and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, decided to intervene and deal with both the symptoms and the disease. They provide food, clothes and shelter to address the symptoms, and help find a way for these people to provide for their own needs and live a decent life to address the disease of poverty. Above and beyond the problem at hand, more jobs are needed in Mexico and opportunities for immigrant labor in the U.S. need to be improved. The issue of large numbers of undocumented people living in the U.S. needs also to be resolved through congressional action.

Consequently, in response to their conclusions, the California Province of the Society of Jesus and Jesuit Refugee Service/USA joined with several partner organizations and created the KBI, which was designed to respond to migration issues based on the following four criteria: by attending to the fundamental needs and human rights of deported migrants; by providing formation opportunities about the reality of migration through educational activities for pastoral agents and interested groups; by creating a space for research about migration, which includes the documentation of the experiences of people who are deported, and by advocating for just and humane immigration reform, in Mexico and the United States, through other networks and organizations.

These criteria represent the four legs of a platform for justice. No doubt that each item could be implemented separately, but giving each criterion equal priority allows programs to move from solving the immediate problem to working for a comprehensive solution.

The executive director of the KBI is a young Jesuit priest, Fr. Sean Carroll, who just made his final vows as a Jesuit about a year ago at San Felipe de Jesus Catholic Church in Nogales, Arizona. He is a very dedicated young man who works constantly to assure the continuation of the KBI. Fr. Pete Neeley, an older Jesuit priest and experienced activist who has worked on humanitarian issues all over the world, assists him. The remaining staff of the KBI includes the following individuals: Sister Maria Engracia Robles, Sister Rosalba Ávalos, and Sister Lorena Leyva, who all work primarily in the area of humanitarian assistance; Fr. Martin McIntosh, who works in socio-pastoral outreach, and Luisa Ledford, who is director of development and outreach.

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